Guest Article #8

Climate change, energy and food security, economic development - in the end, it all trickles down to water

We can be certain about one thing related to the future. The pressure on water resources will continue to increase. This is a fundamental challenge as water resources, unlike fossil fuels, are an irreplaceable natural resource for human survival. In light of climate change, and dwindling fossil fuel resources, the quest to find alternative sustainable energy sources will escalate. Eventually we will succeed, no doubt, but on the way the fundamental role of water will become even more evident, also in relation to energy security. And it is not only about hydropower – water is fundamental for cooling purposes, to grow bioenergy crops, and for storing and transporting energy.

There is enough water to sustain the needs of the global population. Fortunately, unlike fossil fuel, water is a renewable resource. However, as the population continues to increase and economic development progresses (despite financial hick-ups along the way) the demand for water increases rapidly and efficient water resources management, along with water quality preservation, will grow in importance. We must increase efficiency and get out more benefits from each drop of water, and we must stop degrading the water that we have.

The water issue, or water crisis as it is frequently referred to, needs to be approached from two quite different perspectives. One is related to the Millennium Development Goals on access to water and sanitation. Although we are still facing a catastrophic situation, in particular related to sanitation, this is less a water resources issue and more a socio-political/financial issue. The other perspective is related to our fundamental need for food, energy and development in more general terms. This has wider water resources implications and will also require considerable attention in the coming decades. Why? Well, while we need 20-50 liters per person a day for basic household consumption, we need at least 3500 liters per person a day for our daily food needs.

Then we have climate change – the increasingly big joker. Water frequently functions as the link between the climate system and human society. Most natural catastrophes are water related – floods and droughts are the most obvious examples. If we manage water, we can, to a large extent, manage climate variability and thus also be better prepared for climate change. Strategies related to climate change adaptation must, therefore, increasingly focus on water resources management. The same is true for climate change mitigation – as arguably new (and renewable) energy production will still require abundant water resources – be it for cooling or be it for growing bioenergy crops. The process leading up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference must specifically focus on the water implications of both climate change adaptation and mitigation – in its widest sense. If not, the sustainability of agreed actions may be in peril. There are some positive movements in that direction.

UN-Water is the United Nations' mechanism established to foster cooperation and coherence within the UN-system in relation to water. Water resources issues are multi-faceted and there is no single actor that can claim to have the full mandate. This is not unique for the UN System; it is the same also within governments. Different entities are in charge of water as it relates to agriculture, drinking water and sanitation, energy, industrial development, etc. The goal is not to establish a single entity – the goal is to foster close collaboration in order to support the system to deliver comprehensive and effective policy, and management solutions.

UN-Water often operates through Task Forces, addressing fundamental water related issues. One such recently launched Task Force will focus on water and climate change. The idea will be both to see how the UN System can operate more efficiently to address water and climate related challenges, but also to be in a position to provide more coordinated support and input to global processes such as the COP meeting of the UNFCCC.

But being successful in integrating water related issues within the COP process is not enough. It is also essential to increase our efforts to influence other policy-related processes, which are of key importance to wider development aspects but which may not currently integrate climate and water considerations. Examples of such out-of-sector decision making processes are the global trade negotiations, which not least struggle with questions related to agriculture. An agreement will influence production patterns and thus have huge impacts on water resources issues as well as climate change adaptation (through trade). Other examples are national decision-making processes related to economic policies, energy, infrastructure planning, etc. More integrated political decision-making processes are necessary, with a capacity to also integrate cross-cutting issues such as water and climate change.

So, clearly, water issues and climate change are intrinsically linked. A major management challenge, surely, but also an opportunity; an opportunity to strengthen collaboration between key stakeholders sharing common concerns, an opportunity to find progressive and sustainable solutions that may have multiple benefits (infrastructure development, etc), an opportunity to better contextualize the climate change issue, an opportunity to achieve further political attention on the critical role of water and thus encourage long overdue investments. We clearly have a lot of interesting work ahead of us.